Cover Story

Cheers!

''Cheers'' celebrates its 200th episode -- A look back at the inception of the hit NBC comedy, now in its eighth season

In late November 1982, Cheers threw a show, and nobody came. Since its premiere two months earlier, NBC's new comedy about the denizens of a Boston beer joint had been languishing in the Nielsens. In its 9 p.m. Thursday time slot, the show was being routinely clobbered by CBS' Simon & Simon and ABC's Too Close for Comfort. That week, the news was even worse. Cheers had finished dead last — 68th out of 68 prime-time shows. The series' theme song, ''Where Everybody Knows Your Name,'' fared no better; released as a single, it topped out at No. 83 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

''We were terrified and despondent,'' recalls Les Charles, who had spent a year creating Cheers with his brother, Glen, and director James Burrows. ''We had a funny show, and we couldn't get anyone to watch — there was a great deal of prejudice simply because it was set in a bar.'' ''Luckily,'' adds his brother, ''NBC was the lowest-rated network. Beggars can't be choosers.'' The abysmal ratings were for a comedy that many critics had called the season's best — although The New York Times' John J. O'Connor groused, ''Obviously, Cheers will not win many awards for originality.''

Twenty-two Emmys, eight seasons, and 200 episodes later, Cheers has survived long odds, cast defections, and competition ranging from Ted Knight to Twin Peaks to become America's favorite watering hole — a neighborhood bar for a neighborhood of 35 million people. On Nov. 8, the show that barely survived its first season will celebrate its bicentennial with an episode in which pundit John McLaughlin conducts a mock Q-and-A session with the show's regulars — a lovable, complicated, perfectly tuned ensemble of indelible comic characters. Next spring, when the Nielsens for its ninth season are tallied, Cheers could well be the No. 1 series of the year. That would be a first for the show (though it has finished in the top five for the last five seasons).

It could all have been so different, if everything had gone according to plan. For one thing, Sam Malone wasn't supposed to be a former relief pitcher at all, but an ex-football player. And he wasn't supposed to be a smart dope, just a dope. For a while, he wasn't even supposed to be Ted Danson. According to Cheers lore, Fred Dryer (Hunter) and Julia Duffy (Newhart) came very close to grabbing the roles of Sam and Diane, and igniting the relationship that sparked the show's first five years. (William Devane and Lisa Eichhorn were also in the running.) It was Danson's chemistry with Shelley Long during an audition for NBC executives that convinced the Cheers team that they had found the perfect pair.

''Shelley was Diane the minute she walked in the room,'' recalls Glen Charles. ''Ted was not the Stanley Kowalski we were looking for, but he brought a dimension to Sam we hadn't anticipated — a feeling that he was pretending to be dumber than he was just to make Diane miserable.''

Danson tells a different story. ''I had no glimmering of how to play the character whatsoever,'' he says, laughing. ''Here was a guy who was an alcoholic relief pitcher — do you know the kind of arrogance that takes? I don't think I had the requisite disrespect you need to play this part until about the third or fourth year.''

The rest of the ensemble evolved throughout the first year. Acid-tongued waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) and bar-bellied accountant Norm (George Wendt) were in from the start. Another Cheers Customer — an old, cranky, wheelchair-bound woman who spouted political invective — was dropped from the show before the first episode aired. Conversely, John Ratzenberger's Cliff, the postman with a mailbag full of irritating factoids, was a happy accident. ''Ratzenberger brought that blowhard character to us,'' says Burrows. Originally signed for a few episodes, he became an official regular in the second season. (Some Cheers writers now keep trivia books handy as sources of Cliff-style useless knowledge.)

By Cheers' second year, the show's popularity was growing. When Sam and Diane began to date during the 1983-84 season, the program jumped to 41st in the Nielsens; the next year, when the unhappy couple came apart and Diane's Jung lover Frasier Crane was introduced, it moved up to 13th.

At the same time, Cheers was undergoing backstage turmoil. The illness of Nicholas Colasanto, who played the benevolent Coach, and the near-simultaneous real-life pregnancies of Long and Perlman necessitated frantic replotting. Perlman's was no problem: Carla simply became pregnant with her sixth of eight (so far) kids. But according to Glen Charles, Long's motherhood was almost written into the series as well. Various scenarios had Diane expecting a baby by Frasier, by Sam, even by a sperm donor. ''None of those possibilities seemed happy,'' says Charles. ''In the end, we tried to cover it, and in having her always behind the bar or carrying a tray, we ended up running for our lives.''

But Cheers has survived primarily by turning every crisis to its advantage. When Colasanto died in 1985, Woody Harrelson was brought in as Woody Boyd. The goofy uncle that had been Coach was transformed into a goofy nephew, and every relationship in the bar was freshened. ''I'd just turned 24,'' says Harrelson, ''and I was inordinately nervous. I remember standing behind that Cheers door shaking, waiting to come into the bar for the first time, and then the energy of the show took over.'' And when Long left in 1987 for a film career, conventional wisdom held that her departure would spell the end. ''Whenever the show had been in trouble, we took Sam and Diane into the office and had a great scene,'' recalls co-executive producer Cheri Eichen. ''Now, we'd be making our way in the dark.'' But then Cheers brought in Kirstie Alley as bar manager and corporate climber Rebecca Howe, and the entire series was reinvigorated.

''Our idea was to make Rebecca a sexy villainess,'' says Glen Charles. ''But Kirstie was so nervous the first few weeks that we thought, why not use all those little neurotic tinges beneath the self-containment? We used her comedic talents more than we ever thought we would.''

''It was nerve-racking,'' says Alley, recalling her first week on the set. ''They had all created a great series, and I didn't particularly want to be the cause of its demise. The biggest thing that I had to learn was to take my timing from the audience. At the beginning, I would talk right through the laughs, which looked pretty hokey.'' Alley's onstage jitters eventually made their way into the scripts, and Rebecca's character. ''Basically, I'm just clumsy,'' she says, laughing. ''I would run into doors and trip in real life, and they would write it in.''

Since Alley's arrival, the Cheers ensemble has expanded to include psychiatrist Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth) and corporate raider Robin Colcord (Roger Rees). ''It's terribly frightening to come into such an established group,'' says Rees, who's in his second season as Robin. ''But when I started, Kirstie took me aside and told me she was going to give me a piece of advice that someone had given her when she started. 'Wear a blond wig,' she said, 'and act as much like Shelley Long as possible.' That made everything easier.''

Cheers' 200th segment will recap some of the highlights from the last eight years, but there won't be room enough to relive all of the show's best moments. The preceding 199 episodes have provided a gallery of great shows, scenes, jokes, and customers. Here are some of the most notable.

All-star guest stars:
Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, and Admiral William Crowe have all crossed the Cheers threshold. Robert Urich showed up playing himself, John Cleese won an Emmy as Sam and Diane's utterly baffled therapist, and former Senator Gary Hart (as himself) and Twin Peaks' Sherilyn Fenn (as a Tortelli in-law) also made appearances — though not, sadly, in the same episode. And Dryer and Duffy may never have gotten to play Sam and Diane, but they were rewarded with consolation roles. Dryer appeared a few times as a sportscaster buddy of Sam's, and Duffy showed up in one episode as Diane's friend, who was, oddly enough, named Rebecca.

Best Norm-and-Cliff exchange:
According to Les Charles, it goes something like this:
Norm (at the bar): My shorts are riding up.
Cliff: Why don't you stand up and straighten them out?
Norm: Nah, I'll give them five minutes. Sometimes they self-adjust.

Best Malone maneuver:
It came last season during Rebecca's sex dream about Sam. She collapses on the couch, he stands over her in triumph, reaches for his belt buckle — and can't seem to get his trousers off. ''For some reason,'' says Danson, ''I truly made myself laugh trying to get my pants open with a fireplace poker.''

Most popular running gags:
''Jokes about Sam's hair are always good, although we try not to do too many in a row,'' says co-executive producer Bill Steinkellner. ''We love Norm-drinking-beer jokes too. We used to have jokes about Woody's relatives being maimed. That was funny for a while, but I think we've run that comedy mine dry.''

Favorite Norm one-liner:
George Wendt picks an episode in which Sam asks, ''How's life out there?'' and Norm responds, ''It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I'm wearing Milk-Bone underwear.''

Least memorable character:
Sam's ex-wife, Debra. You say you didn't know Sam had an ex-wife? Actress Donna McKechnie showed up to play the role in Cheers' second episode, but Debra hasn't been seen or discussed much in the 198 since.

Funniest shows:
Danson picks the one in which Sam and Diane tried to outdo each other by finding the perfect dates, and Diane ended up with a paroled killer. Surprisingly, Wendt says he's ''not a big fan of the episodes about Norm.'' His choices for classics are two early episodes: one in which Coach's daughter (Allyce Beasley) visits, and one in which Diane loudly mourns the passing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (her cat). Steinkellner cites a Thanksgiving dinner at Carla's that ended in (surprise) a hail of thrown food, and Perlman picks the segment when Carla and Sam attend the wedding of her loutish ex, Nick Tortelli. Alley's favorite: ''I like the show where Robin gives me a diamond bracelet and I'm acting like it's some revolting bribe. And then, suddenly, I decide to take it.''

Sentimental favorites:
Writers and actors alike point to Sam and Diane's first kiss (off-camera, at the end of season one) and their last embrace, a goodbye dance that concluded Cheers' fifth season and Long's run on the show. Last season's two-parter in which Rebecca slept with Robin Colcord also comes in for high praise. ''It was a great show for Kirstie,'' says co-executive producer Phoef Sutton. ''She was very funny and even moving.''

Favorite jokes:
The teasers that open each show are the ''hardest to write, and most rewarding,'' Eichen says. ''Sometimes you don't even need any dialogue.'' One classic example: a wordless sequence in which Sam, Woody, Cliff, and Norm come to visit Carla's newborn twins in the hospital, and end up bonding with other, cuter babies.

Favorite off-camera moments:
According to Perlman, the Thanksgiving food fight was even more enjoyable off-screen. ''I loved it,'' she says. ''By the end of that scene, which went on much longer than it did on the show, we were sliding around in slop and having so much fun we didn't even care.''

With its popularity still growing, Cheers' final episode seems far in the future; when it arrives, it will probably result from a consensus among the cast and creative team that it's time to call it quits. Don't count on that happening anytime soon. Danson told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that he'll definitely stay through the 10th season, which will end in May 1992. The rest of the cast is likely to follow.

And beyond that? ''I was talking with George and Rhea and John the other day,'' says Woody Harrelson, ''and they were saying that the bar is really the essential element. You could probably introduce the progeny of various characters and run the thing for 20 years.'' Cheers: The Next Generation? ''I'm not so sure about that,'' he says. ''But we'll probably be around for a while.''

Originally posted Oct 26, 1990 Published in issue #37 Oct 26, 1990 Order article reprints